From DeseretNews.com, Hilda L. Solis, U.S. Secretary of Labor, 2 Sept 2011.
Google, Goya, Yahoo, Intel and Levi Strauss. It’s hard to imagine a day without these iconic and uniquely American brands.
But what most people don’t know is that all of them were founded or co-founded by immigrants.
Goya foods was started by Don Prudencio and Carolina Unanueb — a young immigrant couple who in 1936 sold olives and olive oil from a tiny Manhattan storefront. Almost 60 years later, the website Yahoo was co-created by Jerry Yang, who immigrated to California from Taipei as a child.
Immigrants founded 18 percent of the 2010 Fortune 500 companies — which post combined revenues of $1.7 trillion and employ more than 3.6 million people.
Our current economy certainly needs to be fostering success stories like these. But just as important: we also need to foster the successes of countless immigrants who mow our lawns, build our roads, clean our offices and harvest our crops. Because we all benefit from their work, too.
Too often, immigrants work in our country’s underground economy — earning unfair wages, suffering unsafe conditions and hiding from authorities. This is not only wrong, it’s economically self-defeating. For generations, immigrants have helped to bring prosperity to our country through entrepreneurial spirit and sweat equity.
Given their economic potential, why would anyone want to shut off the tap of foreign-born talent? Why force willing wage earners — and potential taxpayers — into the shadows with no path to legal citizenship?
I’m perplexed by the questions because the answers seem so obvious. Yet the current U.S. immigration system does exactly these things.
We educate foreign-born workers at a faster rate than any other country. But our outdated immigration system often sends them packing, only to create billion-dollar companies in countries that compete against us.
Our flawed immigration system also threatens the country’s agriculture industry. Growers that can’t find field labor end up shutting down or turning to undocumented workers.
I’ve heard the arguments: Immigrants take jobs away from native-born workers. They depress wages. Both claims are false. In fact, every immigrant farm worker supports three additional jobs — often in better-paying sectors like manufacturing, packaging and transportation. In high-skilled industries, the impact is even greater with each immigrant worker estimated to create five additional jobs. As for pay, studies show that native workers earn higher wages in areas with higher immigration.
If the status quo persists, America stands to miss enormous opportunities to accelerate our recovery.
I’m particularly concerned about undocumented young people who live in the U.S. because their parents came here seeking a brighter future. I think about them every time I talk about the DREAM Act — legislation designed to stop punishing innocent young people for the actions of their parents by giving them the chance to obtain legal status either by pursuing a higher education or by serving in the U.S. armed forces.
Sadly, the DREAM Act has yet to become reality, despite the economic value. Students who will benefit from the DREAM Act are projected to contribute well over $1 billion in tax returns for multiple years. That benefits all of us.
We have made progress. The Obama administration recently unveiled new policy initiatives to attract foreign entrepreneurs who can invest in fields of high unemployment and start new companies. The recent expansion of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs and support of emerging legislation like the StartUp Visa Act also point in the right direction.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has announced they will begin applying common sense guidelines to deportation decisions, factoring in ties and contributions to the community, family relationships and military service records.
These are significant steps, but they are just the beginning of what we must do. President Obama cannot fix America’s immigration system on his own. He needs partners in Congress to pass reforms that will support immigrant families and strengthen the American economy.
On Labor Day 2011, I’m reminded that America is an ongoing story and that we have not reached the final chapter. On this day, as we celebrate the contributions workers have made to the strength and prosperity of our nation, we need to remind ourselves that immigrants played — and will continue to play — a critical role in that story.
Hilda L. Solis is the U.S. Secretary of Labor.